Review: Creed passes on the Rocky torch and recaptures the original's spirit

A crowd-pleasing Cinderella story that reframes the classic series

In one of Creed’s many defining scenes, an aged Rocky Balboa, having long ago put down his boxing gloves, once again climbs the iconic Rocky Steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Adonis Creed, his protégé and heir apparent, is with him, goading him on. The climb is a struggle — it always was. But after their ascent, the pair looks out over the city together, basking in its glow. It’s like they can see their whole lives from there. For Rocky, that life lies largely in the past. Adonis, on the other hand, still has his whole life ahead of him.

At nearly 40 years old, the Rocky franchise has quite the history. While the 1976 original won three Oscars, including Best Picture, its follow-ups only got progressively more ridiculous. (At one point there was a robot butler. It was the ‘80s.) It was only 2006's Rocky Balboa that kept the series from falling into complete ignominy. With Creed, we return to Rocky's world, but it's now Adonis' turn in the ring — and the film is more than worthy of the legacy. Creed is a crowd-pleasing, if formulaic, Cinderella story that recaptures what made Rocky such a classic. More than that, it allows the present to collide with and add depth to the franchise's past, improving on the whole series in the process.

Creed reunites director Ryan Coogler with rising star Michael B. Jordan in their second film since 2013's critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station. Here, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former heavyweight champion of the world who was killed in the ring back in Rocky IV. Raised by Apollo's steadfast wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis at first leads a comfortable, if unremarkable life while fostering a burning need to fight just like his father did. It isn't long before he leaves home for Philadelphia so he can meet his father's friend and rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and finally make a name for himself in the ring.

Jordan's performance is incredible. Right at the outset, he cuts such an imposing figure as a fighter that it's hard to believe he was once skinny little Wallace on The Wire. But even outside the boxing arena, one can almost see the chip on Adonis' shoulder. Jordan conveys a powerful hunger for validation in Adonis' quest for glory, simmering with rage at being both abandoned by his dead father and needing to live up to the man's memory, and he expertly balances that intensity with charm and a disarming sense of humor. At one point, Adonis flatly admits that he needs to empty his bowels before a match because of his overwhelming nerves. It's one of the funniest moments of the whole movie, even in a palpably tense moment. Jordan's Adonis is a great deal more complex than Rocky Balboa ever was, and that complexity makes his journey to becoming champion of the world all the more potent.

For the most part, that journey can stand on its own — this is a tried-and-true underdog story, after all. But steeping the film in Rocky lore makes the film even richer. It's clear that Coogler loves the franchise — even some of the bad bits — peppering in nods to the previous films wherever he can, be they references to Rocky and Apollo's third and final fight in Rocky III or that famous training montage. That devotion to the Rocky myth makes the parallels between the past and present powerful, particularly in the other performances. Dear White People's Tessa Thompson takes on the Adrian role as Bianca, a rising Philly musician who becomes Adonis' love interest and source of support. Real-life professional boxer Tony Bellew plays boxing champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, Adonis' own race-swapped Apollo Creed. And, of course, Rocky himself steps out of the contender role and becomes the grizzled coach, just like Burgess Meredith's Mickey in the original film.


Photo by Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros. / Metro Goldwyn-Mayer

But above all, Creed is rooted in the present, and Coogler finds plenty of ways to make his story feel fresh both technically and thematically. The camerawork is light-years ahead of what director John G. Avildsen attempted back in 1976. Rocky's first fight in the original is shot simply, from right outside the ropes. Adonis' first real bout is shown in a taut single shot that circles around the fighters as they deliver blow after blow. For another, the score, composed by Fruitvale Station veteran Ludwig Göransson, moves back and forth seamlessly between the original Bill Conti fanfare and present-day hip-hop, interpolating tracks by artists like Future and Meek Mill.

But most important is how the movie reinterprets Apollo Creed himself. In the original film, Apollo is a great fighter and the undisputed world champion, but he's also the villain. While Rocky respects him and eventually befriends him, Rocky is always the hero — a hero supposedly easier to identify with than the black Apollo. That interaction colors the entire franchise and the two characters' relationship, all the way up until Apollo's death in Rocky IV. So in choosing to pass the torch to Adonis, Coogler allows the characters to look back on both Apollo and Rocky's legacies and state plainly that while Rocky might have been one of the greats, Apollo was the greatest. In effect, Coogler makes the Rocky series about two great men instead of one, and Adonis goes on to take his place beside both of them, earning the Creed name and earning Rocky's unwavering support.

With Creed, Coogler and Jordan make an excellent case for where the Rocky franchise could go next. While we certainly don't need a sequel with robots, Adonis Creed is an American hero audiences could adore for a long time. He climbed the Rocky Steps right next to the Italian Stallion himself. What else is he capable of?